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Five Survival Tips for the Autistic Child's Tantrums

Updated on May 25, 2013
Autism infinity symbol. An alternative to puzzle piece autism symbols
Autism infinity symbol. An alternative to puzzle piece autism symbols | Source

No Zombies Here

Parenting children with special needs is the kind of challenge they don't prepare you for in school. Unless you happened to have majored in special education, many if not all of the parenting crises you are facing come out of nowhere and leave you wondering what to do. My son went through early intervention, the regular merry-go-round of doctors and therapists, specialists and well-meaning friends, all with diagnoses and advice. Some of it helped. Most of it left us with more questions.

Although we had one child already, a neurotypical girl a year and a half older than her brother, even her regular toddler tantrums left us unprepared for the awesome power of an autistic child in full-blown meltdown at the mall. As all parents do, we deal with things as they happen, the best that we can. Much like a zombie apocalypse, the best you can do is try to survive.

Step 1: Don't Lose Your Head

When your child is in meltdown mode, no matter what the reason, the worst thing you can do is escalate the situation by getting angry with her or him. Even though you just wanted to step inside the grocery store for milk, or you were stopping for lunch at a new shop, your kid is now in a full-blown screaming tantrum, and what you really want to do is shout at her or him to pipe down and stop embarrassing you in front of these people.


Whatever you need to do, be it take three steps back and breathe, or pop a chocolate into your mouth, do it. Get your oxygen mask of calm on first. Despite the popular perception that kids on the spectrum can't read others' emotions, your child is actually very perceptive of your mood. If you lose it, your child will react the same way.

Step 2: Check For Triggers

My son cannot abide the film "Finding Nemo." At all. The same goes for "Monsters, Inc." Even so much as a mention of either film sends him spiraling into panic mode, and it's nigh unto impossible to bring him out again if we don't catch on quickly enough. (The few times we've been able to talk about it, right before he bursts into tears again and sobs uncontrollably, he's said it's because they both have scenes where toilets are used incorrectly.)

You probably already know your child's triggers. If you don't, now is a great time to start paying attention. Loud or unexpected noises are a big set-off for some children on the spectrum. Kids with sensory issues may panic while wearing the wrong material or because their shoes are tied the wrong way. Autistic kids often have difficulty expressing their reasons for being upset, so it's on you to observe what's in their environment that could be causing the distress. Anything could be a trigger for a special kid, even a movie about a lost clown fish.

Step 3: Divide and Conquer

Distract your child from the trigger, if you can. "Finding Nemo" is on the TV in the window? It's a fine time to go exploring the joys of this year's neutrals in the ladies' department. Another good distraction is figuring out your child's sensory inputs and keeping a supply close. My son has a big oral-motor fixation, so we used to keep chewing gum in our pockets at all times as an instant distraction. Lately, his new chew has been a toddler teether he picked out in the baby aisle. Chew sticks and fobs specifically designed for kids with sensory issues are available for purchase online, and he does use one of the special chews at school, but the teething ring has been just as effective for us. Favorite toys are also good for this purpose.

If the triggering situation is a regular occurrence, you can come prepared. Many kids have multiple sensory issues that can be addressed in advance. My son has a set of noise-deadening headphones which live in his backpack at school. He wears them on the bus, in the cafeteria, and at assemblies, whenever the other kids are too loud. At home, we take them with us when we're going somewhere that could be too loud. Otherwise I keep a small set of earplugs with me for emergencies.

Other pre-emptive measures include weighted vests, mittens, and hats, anything that you can keep on hand that will soothe your child before the eruption. Deep pressure is a quick-solve soother for a tantrum --- if all else fails, go for the giant hugs. My son loves having his jaw and feet massaged. It's not the best solution when we're out to dinner, but if it calms him back down before he screams, give me those toes.

Step 4: Retreat

If you can't distract your child, accept that you may have to leave the place where you are. Other parents, meaning well, may tell you don't, because that's giving into the child's tantrum and teaching them to get their way. However, if your child has already spiraled into a full meltdown, she or he is no longer processing the world logically. Your first priority is your well-being and your child's. The groceries will wait.

Retreat doesn't always mean a full trip home. Just like diaper changes, sometimes all you need is a trip to the bathroom and a hit from the water fountain. Our local malls offer family bathrooms, and even nursing stations geared towards a momentary quiet with the child. Learn the locations and use them as a place to regroup.

Step 5: Every Mom for Herself

This isn't as antisocial as it sounds. You can't let the opinions of the people around you dictate how you feel or how you treat your child. Only you know the special challenges you deal with every day, or how hard it is to convince your child not to streak naked through the playground. Yes, there will be other parents judging you for the way your kid is the one squealing and not behaving. Kids on the spectrum look like every other kid, and you don't always have time, energy, or even the opportunity to explain that, no, actually, your kid isn't being an undisciplined brat, she or he is playing for an hour between occupational therapy and speech therapy appointments and some other kid mentioned the Fish Movie. Yes, that boy is wearing his pajamas on the playground today because they are his only clothes that fit and also feel comfortable against his skin, and yes, those pajamas have purple unicorns all over. People will judge, and they will think they know how best to fix your kid. (Pity the ones who think your kid just needs a spanking. Especially if they meet me.) Don't worry about them. You matter. Your kid matters. Other people's opinions don't.

Besides, with the statistics growing as they are, some of the other adults around you that you think are judging you are probably dealing with troubles of their own.

Bonus Step: Nobody Deserves the Zombie Apocalypse

Some days, you're going to have the perfect outing. Your child will be well-mannered and perfectly behaved. When a tantrum threatens, you will have the perfect distraction on your person to whisk away all fears. You will go home feeling like a million dollars.

Other days, you will think you are the worst parent ever.

Both of these are normal days.

Forgive yourself when you don't react perfectly to your child's outbursts, and you wind up being That Family that everyone is staring at. Try to do better the next time. No child could ask for better.


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